If you can’t solve problems and enjoy it, you won’t make it as an entrepreneur. By definition, an entrepreneur is the first to undertake a given business, and firsts never happen without problems and frustrations. The toughest problems are people problems, like personnel issues, but there are tough operational problems as well, such as vendor delays and quality surprises.
The real entrepreneurs I know are good at overcoming both people problems and business obstacles and at getting satisfaction from the challenge. Some people think this is a talent that you must be born with, but experts disagree. You can definitely train yourself to be a problem solver, if you haven’t already. It’s a key skill for success in every business role, from accountant to customer support. Here are some basics rules:
- Practice active listening. Whether it’s a frustrated employee or a dissatisfied customer, what you first hear is usually someone yelling with emotion or talking so fast that you don’t know what they are talking about. The first thing to do is resist the urge to vocally jump into the fray and listen attentively without interruption. Often the person will solve their own problem as they are unloading.
- Promise action, but manage expectations. Calmly commit to resolve the problem, but don’t immediately promise any given solution. Let the person know that the situation is not simple and you need some time to investigate the circumstances and alternatives. Then give an expected time frame for an answer and move to the next stage.
- Investigate thoroughly. There are at least two sides to every problem. Don’t assume anything, and gather facts from all relevant parties. If it’s a judgment or fair treatment question, practice your active listening with each party. If a problem requires special expertise, like a tax question, do your homework or call an expert.
- Provide regular progress updates to all. Status communication is critical if the resolution time is going to be longer than one day, even if you have given an expected time from longer than one day. This is probably the most important step and probably the most neglected. If they hear nothing, unhappy people get progressively harder to satisfy.
- Make a timely decision. Meet your committed time frame for a resolution. Schedule enough face-to-face time (not email or text message) to lay out your understanding of the problem, facts you have assembled, options that you considered and your decision reached, with reasoning behind it. If possible, let the person with the problem chose from alternatives so you get more “buy-in.” Put the decision in writing to prevent ambiguity.
- Follow-up. No matter how smooth the resolution, you need to re-confirm the decision with affected parties within hours or days. This reaffirms your commitment to the process and to their satisfaction and avoids any secondary problems. If the problem was a business process, have the process update documented and communicated to all.
It’s critical to train everyone in your team on these principles if you want an effective business. Your goal in all of this is to be a role model and earn respect for you own position, as well as to empower team members to effectively solve problems for you and for your customers directly.
Problems happen. That’s part of life and people usually understand that. Problems are an everyday part of every business and personal environment. In fact, every business is about solutions to customer problems; No problems, no business.
Entrepreneurs who are great problem solvers within the business are best prepared to solve their customers’ needs effectively as well. But in both cases, forcing a smile is not an alternative to the techniques described above. Your team and your customers will see right through it.
Image credit: CC by Bhernandez.